The Fly Fishing Photographer

For anglers, being on the water is where many of our most memorable experiences are created. Capturing those moments on film, or in megapixels helps us to relive the instances that frame our experience. But balancing photography time with fishing time is a tricky business which requires a balancing act between rod and camera.

Elevenmile Rainbow
As a photographer, capturing images like this pre-release shot are no problem when the camera is out and ready to go. Rather than fumbling to stow your rod and get into a suitable position you are able to get the shot quickly and get the trout back into the water with minimal handling stress.

For those who aspire to strike the balance between rod and camera, take heart because it can be done by keeping one thing in mind; you can’t get the shot with a fly rod in your hands, believe me I’ve tried.

Be Willing to Take a Moment

The old adage “you can’t catch a fish without a hook in the water” parallels getting the best photographs while on the water. You simply can’t get the shot without a camera in your hand.

Although the endeavor of angling would be pointless without them, the angling experience is about far more than the fish we catch. Getting your buddy in a grip and grin or taking a net shot of the fish you just landed is a no brainer. But how many times have you returned from an outing and thought about the sunrise as you set out in the morning, the osprey perched in a tree, the fading light accentuating fall leaves gathered in an eddy or sunlight filtering through quaking aspens?

In the book Why I Fly Fish by Chris Santella, Flip Pallot shares the story of his first day on the water with his good friend, the late Lefty Kreh.  At one point during the day they spotted a group of flamingos with redfish feeding among them, Kreh asked Pallot to get them closer. As they approached Kreh traded his fly rod for his camera. Pallot poled the skiff closer while Kreh snapped close to a hundred photos before putting the camera away to catch a few of those fish.

James with Geese
The geese in the background of this photo create an added dimension to already interesting image. Having stowed my camera rather than stay ready I missed an even more dramatic image of them taking flight in the background just seconds after I put the camera away.

While you can’t fly fish and photograph in the same moment it is possible to capture the image when it presents itself and then fish. Sometimes it’s good to just take a moment and take the photo, the fish aren’t going anywhere.

The One That Got Away

There is no photo that conveys the heat of the action better than that of an angler with a bent rod, especially if you can get it with the fish breaking water but it’s a shot you have to be prepared for.

As a freelance fly fishing writer I spend quite a bit of time on the water doing what my friend James Dionizio classifies as work fishing. Rather than commit myself to staying on the fish, a considerable amount of time is spent behind the camera. Quite often that camera time coincides with the best windows of fishing time but those prime fishing times are also prime for getting the best action shots. The key to getting those shots is to stay focused on photographing.

Kokanee Closeup
Having a camera equipped with a good telephoto lens allows you to capture closeup images from a distance rather than having to crowd in on the shot.

There have been a number of instances while fishing when the opportunity to get a good action shot was missed; usually because there are only so many casting photos that can be taken in a day and I was trying to capture the image of something like a flower, fence post or grasshopper. The camera has to be pointed in the right direction. Get the shot before it gets away, then let your attention wander.

First Cut Release
Being able to capture the image of a “first” for a fellow angler’s is almost is one of the most satisfying moments as a photographer. This image will help James Dionizio relive the moment of his very first cutthroat trout by enjoying the image of its release.

Gearing Up

Whether you’re shooting with a cell phone, point and shoot or a full-size DSLR you need both hands to properly operate the camera. If you’re fly fishing and photographing what do you do with your rod? There are a couple options beyond leaving it on the bank against a tree.

If you wear a fly vest you’ve got a built-in rod holder already at your service. Fly vests are equipped with a small loop that hangs from the bottom on the right side of the vest and a Velcro strap above the left breast pocket. The rod holder feature is intended to secure your rod while making fly changes and is acceptable for photographing with a cell phone or compact point and shoot camera. But personally I don’t like the rod across my body when there’s a 4 lb. camera and lens hanging from my neck. The Smith Creek Rod Clip solves this issue. Placed near the right shoulder of the vest it keeps the rod completely out of the way.

Justin Dream
Justin Fleming will always be able to remember this beautiful cut-bow taken on a tiny dry fly while fishing the famous Dream Stream stretch of the South Platte River in central Colorado.

Cell phones and compact cameras are easy enough to store in a pocket. However, if you’re photographing with a DSLR or 35mm camera you’ll want to keep it dry. I carry a Nikon DSLR with a medium telephoto lens attached and a second smaller lens. This much equipment requires a separate bag. Backpacks are great for some things but when you’re trying to capture photographs and fish in the same day getting the backpack on and off to access your camera is bothersome and time consuming. Consider a good size waistpack.

After some serious shopping I settled on the Umpqua Tongass 650 which has proven indispensable for keeping my camera safe and dry in fresh and saltwater situations. The rod holder built into the belt strap is extremely helpful and comes in handy when I’m fishing/photographing without my bulky fly fishing vest.

The Other One That Got Away

There are times when being the designated photographer makes you long to stow the camera and grab your fly rod and sometimes that’s what you should do. There are times when being behind the camera is just as rewarding as being the angler with the bent rod.

Several years ago at the end of a week of fall fishing in Yellowstone National Park my son Steven and I made an impromptu stop at Grayling Creek for one last taste before heading back to civilization. We only had a few hours and he had yet to land a really big trout that week. About an hour in we were skunked for the day. I decided to stop fishing and get some photos of him to commemorate the last day of the trip. Minutes after taking the camera out he hooked into a monster brown trout that immediately bolted for the fast current, took him nearly into the backing and eventually came unhooked.

We would have deeply enjoyed him landing that fish and getting a hero shot but we ended up with something just as good in our view. Instead of the obligatory hero shot we keep a pair of photos on our desks. One is him hanging on in desperation with the rod bent all the way to the cork. The other is him arms raised in the air, the question of “what just happened” clearly present in the look on his face, a look that wouldn’t have been captured with the camera in my pocket.

The one that got away
By having my camera ready I was able to capture the moment my son lost a huge trout on Grayling Creek at the northwest corner of Yellowstone Park. He may not have landed that trout but we are able to relive the moment over and over through the image.

Written by John E Wood

John E Wood is a lifelong angler, avid fly tyer/designer, freelance writer and photographer whose articles regularly appear in Southwest Fly Fishing magazine. Visit my website here.

brown trout under water

One thought on “The Fly Fishing Photographer

  1. I enjoyed your article. The pro shot of the cutthroat in the guy’s shadow is quick and clear thinking. I’ve tried to fish and take pics but as you point out, it comes down to one or the other. I’ll work on your “take it all in” approach this season. Thanks.

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